On June 14, 2010, Christopher Spurgeon, a 37 year old backcountry skier from Missoula, died while skiing a steep north facing couloir off the north summit of Lolo Peak. He was skiing solo and there were no witnesses to the accident. Based on reports from experienced backcountry skiers/mountaineers who found him, evidence at the site suggests that Chris was entrained in a Class 1 or 2 wet, loose snow avalanche with no chance for escape to either flank, lost a ski, fell and was dragged through exposed rock talus near the terminus of the avalanche path. He sustained severe head injuries and died immediately. The location of the accident site is: 46 41.028N, 114 14.325W.
The avalanche is classified as WL-AS-R1-D1. The entrance to the couloir from the top of the north summit of Lolo peak starts out at about 30 degrees then rolls over to 50 degrees for a short distance where the couloir narrows then moderates to 35 degrees until it reaches a talus field near the bottom. The top of the couloir is at 9000 feet and the location of the body was at 8490 feet. The avalanche released high in the couloir, entrained Chris and carried him for about 800 feet (500 vertical feet).
There were no witnesses to the accident. Colin Chisholm, a frequent ski partner of Spurgeon, planned to ski with him on the 14th but had to cancel and was later instrumental in finding the accident site. The following narrative from Chisholm is the best information we have that tells the story:
“Chris skied northwest off the summit of the north summit of Lolo Peak, and dropped into the Lantern Lake Couloir. We found his first ski approx. 500 feet down, where the couloir narrows and breaks into two distinct smaller gullies. His ski was in the rightmost gulley. His body was located about 800 feet lower, in the talus. He was not buried, but there was ample evidence of wet slide debris all around him. It appeared he had either been carried into the right hand gulley, or was skiing that gulley when the avalanche swept him away. Where he was found the slide path appeared to be about 150 feet wide. It had the look and feel of a wet surface slide, and must have been moving very fast to have carried him so far (about 200 feet) over large talus blocks. He died of blunt force trauma to the head; it is likely he had other major injuries as well. He was not wearing a helmet, but based on the injuries I would say a helmet would not have saved him. We found his other ski and a pole slightly buried about 30-50 feet above him. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and no gloves: we assume he was in a relaxed mode and was not worrying about a slide. He was not wearing a beacon. When we found him on Friday morning, it had snowed approx. 1 foot since Monday, so it was difficult to tell exactly what happened, but the avalanche was obvious”.
Search and Recovery:
The initial report that Spurgeon was missing came through the Missoula 9-1-1 center at 2030hrs on Wednesday June 16. His truck was found at the Mormon Ridge Lookout trail head shortly after the initial report. Missoula County Search and Rescue, Ravalli County Search and Rescue, Missoula County Sheriff deputies along with many close friends and associates of Spurgeon were involved in the search.
On 6/17 a UH-1 Huey with hoist insertion/extraction capability from Malmstom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana along with Life Flight helicopter from St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula were also involved. Weather and visibility conditions severely limited air reconnaissance. Ground personnel reported heavy snowfall and winds gusting to near 50mph at nearby Carlton Lake. Searchers also reported seeing several recent class 1 and 2 avalanches due to the amount of new snow and steepness of the terrain being searched.
Colin Chisholm initially planned to ski with Spurgeon the day of the accident but was unable to make the trip. Chisholm, having a long history as Spurgeon's backcountry partner, had very good sense of where Spurgeon may have skied, so he and 7 other friends set out early on June18th and found their friend at 0900 in rock talus at the base of a steep couloir.
Due to the concern about rescue worker safety in the steep terrain surrounding the accident site, Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin requested the Lolo National Forest's West Central Montana Avalanche Center fly an avalanche specialist to the site to assess the site for avalanche danger, find a close helispot and assist with safe access into the area. After being informed that conditions were safe for flying, a call-when-needed helicopter, Minuteman Aviation's 38MA, arrived at the command post (located at the McClay ranch 6 air miles from Lolo Peak) at 1430 to pick up avalanche specialist Steve Karkanen who then flew to the site. During the flight we observed several class 1 and 2 loose snow avalanches involving the newest snow from the storm on the 17th. At the accident site, the involved couloir as well as the immediate terrain adjacent to the site had slid and did not appear to be a threat to the individuals already on scene or incoming recovery personnel. There was no helispot within reasonable distance to access the site. This information was relayed to teams on the ground as well as the Sheriff and Coroner, who were flying to the site on Air Guard Helicopter Blade 48.
Blade 48 inserted Coroner Mike Dominick into the site by hoist. With help from some of his closest friends, Spurgeon was placed into a rescue litter and hoisted into Blade 48. The helicopter then returned to the command post.
Weather and Snowpack:
The weather the day of the accident was not unusual for mid-June. Temperatures at the Savage Pass SNOTEL station (30 miles southwest from Lolo Peak at 6100 feet) ranged from a low of 38 at 0400 to 65 at 1600. The accident site is at 8500 feet so it would have been a few degrees cooler. Spurgeon was found in a short sleeve shirt and was not wearing gloves confirming that it was a nice day. Several inches of rain fell the previous few days as well as melt water from the warm temperatures so the snow surface would have been very wet.
No snow depth or snow water measurements were recorded at the site. The general area saw mostly below normal snowpack (50% or less of average as of May 1) throughout the winter but continued accumulating snow well into May. Precipitation amounts for the area in June have been above normal with some late season snow falling then rapidly melting. Stuart Peak SNOTEL is the closest high elevation site at 7400 feet reporting 18 inches of old snow on the ground. The area surrounding Lolo Peak has ample snow cover for skiing and riding and is a popular early summer hike and ski well into July most years.
A significant storm on Thursday 6/17 complicated search activities as several inches of snow fell over the search area. 9 inches of new snow was recorded at Stuart Peak SNOTEL (27 miles northeast from Lolo Peak at 7400 feet) and searchers reported up to 2 feet in some wind loaded areas, hence SAR's concern about avalanche conditions.
This was a very difficult search and recovery operation in steep, exposed terrain. The victim's friends played a major role in finding him. He would not have been found in an air search and a ground search would have been very difficult and labor intensive exposing many people to further risk.
A few immediate things that come to mind regarding safe backcountry travel:
Have a partner who knows what to do in an emergency.
If you must travel alone the risk level is much higher even if an injury or equipment malfunction is minor. Let someone know of your travel route and alternate plans, leave a map.
Carry a cell phone, the coverage is very good at high elevation (the folks at the accident site were communicating by cell phone as well as radio). SPOT personal trackers are cheap, use satellite technology and have the ability to send a message that you are OK if you are delayed.
Be prepared to spend the night.
Helmets are always a good idea when skiing, climbing or riding.
Avalanche transceivers work well with trained partners and if alone and buried, they may expedite a recovery which gives friends and family peace of mind.
When recreating on steep snow slopes in the spring and summer remember that rain or melt water can increase the possibility of wet snow avalanches. Avoid steep slopes during the heat of the day or during and immediately after a rain event.